The other night in rehearsal we read through Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta for the first time. As it turns out, I have a conductor-colleague in the orchestra, and he came up to me afterwards to talk about the piece, which we’re both very fond of. He made the point that it is one of those pieces that is really harder to conduct than to play, and I would agree. It’s sort of a concerto for conductor- I’m hoping to use it at the conducting workshop next summer.
This got me thinking- almost none of the standard audition or workshop pieces for conductors fall into what I would call the “very difficult to conduct” category. I suppose that’s good- if they’re so hard, then the students or candidates may not be able to do anything.
I looked back at the repertoire I had to conduct for the American Acdemy of Conducting at Aspen the summer I went there.
Mozart- Overture to Die Zauberflote
Mozart- Violin Concerto No. 5
Mendelssohn- Midsummer Night’s Dream, Overture and Incidental Music
Berlioz- Roman Carnival Overture
Mendelssohn- Symphony No. 3 “Scottish”
Dvorak- Serenade for Winds, Serenade for Strings, Cello Concerto
Beethoven- Symphony No 7
Tchaikowsky- Symphony No. 5
Nothing too hard there.
My first “assistant “audition was- Gershwin- American in Paris
Mozart- Magic Flute Overture Johann Strauss Jr- Fledermaus Overture
Beethoven- Symphony no. 5
Again, the Fledermaus is tricky to do well, but not that hard if you know the style well.
Rite of Spring is supposed to be hard to conduct, and L’Histoire du Soldat even harder because of their mixed meters, and in the case of L’Histoire the use of mixed meters superimposed over a regular time signature. The real problem with those pieces is that if you screw up, everyone screws up. What’s easy about them is that you can learn them at home with a metronome- you don’t need an orchestra to figure out the problems with.
More problematic are pieces that involve a mixture of complex of unpredictable rhythms, tempo flexibility and give and take with solo players. Concertos can be the toughest, but so can a piece like Galanta because of all the tempo changes. If you don’t have the orchestra absolutely watching you like a hawk and trusting you completely, you can’t begin to make the piece happen.
So, here are some really hard pieces to conduct that I’ve come across-
Nielsen- Flute Concerto (I’m sure this is harder for the conductor than the soloist)
Chopin- Either Piano Concerto
Dvorak- Cello Concerto (strangely, most cellist conductors don’t find this hard, because we know how it goes, but I’ve seen enough disasters to add it to the list)
Schumann- Cello Concerto (one of my best friends in the business claims that cellists are too in love with our sounds to play in rhythm, but see Dvorak above…)
Sibelius- Symphony no. 3 (the last movement is so difficult that many conductors just leave out most of the difficult bits, like all the tempo changes, lifts and stops)
Mahler- Das Lied von der Erde (the coda is the hardest thing ever for the players, and you have few chances to help them as you beat a very slow “one.” Very demanding and unforgiving)
Debussy- Jeux and Iberia
Copland- Short Symphony (much worse than Rite or any Stravinsky)